Byron De La Beckwith
|Died||January 21, 2001 (aged 80)|
|Known for||The assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers|
Mary Louise Williams
|Children||Delay De La Beckwith|
Byron De La Beckwith Jr. (November 9, 1920 - January 21, 2001) was an American white supremacist and Klansman from Greenwood, Mississippi, who assassinated the civil rights leader Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963. Two trials in 1964 on that charge, with all-white juries, resulted in hung juries. In 1994, he was tried by the state in a new trial based on new evidence and was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison.
De La Beckwith was born in Colusa, California, the son of Susan Southworth Yerger and Byron De La Beckwith Sr., who was the town's postmaster. His father died of pneumonia when he was 5.[page needed] One year later, De La Beckwith and his mother settled in Greenwood, Mississippi, to be near family. His mother died of lung cancer when he was 12 years old, leaving him orphaned. He was raised by his maternal uncle William Greene Yerger and his wife. He was related by marriage to the socialist author Upton Sinclair, and attended the prestigious southern prep school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee called The Webb School.
In January 1942, De La Beckwith enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, serving as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater of World War II. He fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal and was shot in the waist during the Battle of Tarawa. He was honorably discharged in August 1945.
After serving in the Marine Corps, De La Beckwith moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he married Mary Louise Williams. The couple relocated to Mississippi, where they settled in his hometown of Greenwood. They had a son together, Delay De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith and Williams divorced. He later married Thelma Lindsay Neff.
De La Beckwith worked as a salesman for most of his life, selling tobacco, fertilizer, wood stoves, and other goods. In 1954, following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, he joined his local White Citizens' Council, and was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
On June 12, 1963, at age 42, De La Beckwith murdered NAACP and civil rights leader Medgar Evers shortly after the activist arrived home in Jackson. Beckwith was positioned across the street with a rifle, and he shot Evers in the back. Evers died an hour later, aged 37. Myrlie Evers, his wife, and his three children, James, Reena, and Darrell Evers, were home at the time of the assassination. Their son Darrell recalled the night: "We were ready to greet him, because every time he came home it was special for us. He was traveling a lot at that time. All of a sudden, we heard a shot. We knew what it was." Darrell and the other children fled to the bathroom to hide in the bathtub. All three children had been taught by their parents and forced to practice drills for safety prior to their father's death because of threats made against him and two previous attacks on the house.
The state twice prosecuted De La Beckwith for murder in 1964, but both trials ended with hung juries. Mississippi had effectively disenfranchised black voters since 1890, so they were effectively excluded from serving on juries, whose members were drawn from voter rolls. During the second trial, Ross Barnett, Democratic governor of Mississippi at the time of the assassination, interrupted the proceedings to shake hands with De La Beckwith while Medgar Evers' widow was testifying. The White Citizens' Council paid De La Beckwith's legal expenses in both his 1964 trials.
In January 1966, De La Beckwith, along with a number of other members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about Klan activities. Although De La Beckwith gave his name when asked by the committee (other witnesses, such as Samuel Bowers, invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to that question), he answered no other substantive questions.[page needed] In the following years, De La Beckwith became a leader in the segregationist Phineas Priesthood, an offshoot of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement. The group was known for its hostility toward African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and foreigners.
According to Delmar Dennis, who acted as a key witness for the prosecution at the 1994 trial, De La Beckwith boasted of his role in the death of Medgar Evers at several Ku Klux Klan rallies and similar gatherings in the years following his mistrials. In 1967, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi.[page needed]
In 1969, De La Beckwith's previous charges were dismissed. In 1973, informants alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he planned to murder A.I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans-based B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League. The attack was a racially motivated retaliation for comments that Botnick had made about white Southerners and race relations. Following several days of surveillance, New Orleans Police Department officers stopped De La Beckwith as he was traveling by car on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge to New Orleans. Among the contents of his vehicle were several loaded firearms, a map with highlighted directions to Botnick's house, and a dynamite time bomb. On August 1, 1975, De La Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder; he served nearly three years at the Angola Prison in Louisiana from May 1977 until he was paroled in January 1980.[page needed] Just before entering prison to serve his sentence, De La Beckwith was ordained by Reverend Dewey "Buddy" Tucker as a minister in the Temple Memorial Baptist Church, a Christian Identity congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In the 1980s, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published reports on its investigation of De La Beckwith's trials in the 1960s. It found that the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency supported by residents' taxes and purportedly protecting the image of the state, had assisted De La Beckwith's attorneys in his second trial. The commission had worked against the civil rights movement in numerous ways. In this case, it used state resources to investigate members of the jury pool during voir dire to aid the defense in picking a sympathetic jury.[page needed] These findings of illegality contributed to a retrial of De La Beckwith by the state in 1994.
Myrlie Evers, who later became the third woman to chair the NAACP, refused to abandon her husband's case. When new documents showed that jurors in the previous case were investigated illegally and screened by a state agency, she pressed authorities to re-open the case. In the 1980s, the reporting by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about the earlier Beckwith trials resulted in the state mounting a new investigation. It ultimately initiated a third prosecution, based on this and other new evidence.
By this time, De La Beckwith was living in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. He was extradited to Mississippi for trial at the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson. Before his trial, the 71-year-old white supremacist had asked the justices to dismiss the case against him on the grounds that it violated his rights to a speedy trial, due process and protection from double jeopardy. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled against his motion by a 4-3 vote, and the case was scheduled to be heard in January 1994.
During this third trial, the murder weapon was presented, an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle, with Beckwith's fingerprints. Beckwith claimed that the gun was stolen from his house. He listed his health problems, high blood pressure, lack of energy and kidney problems, saying "I need a list to recite everything I suffer from, and I hate to complain because I'm not the complaining type". The 1994 state trial was held before a jury consisting of eight black people and four white people. They convicted De La Beckwith of first-degree murder for killing Medgar Evers. New evidence included testimony that he had boasted of the murder at a Klan rally, and that he had boasted of the murder to others during the three decades since the crime had occurred. The physical evidence was essentially the same as that presented during the first two trials.
De La Beckwith appealed against the guilty verdict, but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1997. The court said that the 31-year lapse between the murder and De La Beckwith's conviction did not deny him a fair trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for first-degree murder without the possibility of parole. De La Beckwith sought judicial review in the United States Supreme Court, but his petition for certiorari was denied.
On January 21, 2001, De La Beckwith died after he was transferred from prison to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. He was 80 years old. He had suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure, and other ailments for some time.
Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2001-09-16. ISBN 9780743223393. Retrieved June 13, 2013.